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From Word to image: Christian colleges expand visual art programs

By: G. Jeffrey MacDonald
May 17, 2017 Updated: May 17, 2017 at 5:18 pm
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photo - Assistant Professor Josh Dannin speaks with students towards the end of his Graphic Design I class at the Comiskey Art Center Digital Lab on the Saint Anselm College campus in Manchester, N.H., on May 11, 2017. Students were presenting their final project for the introductory studio course which explores digital and analog production and output methods of visual design. RNS photo by John Tully
Assistant Professor Josh Dannin speaks with students towards the end of his Graphic Design I class at the Comiskey Art Center Digital Lab on the Saint Anselm College campus in Manchester, N.H., on May 11, 2017. Students were presenting their final project for the introductory studio course which explores digital and analog production and output methods of visual design. RNS photo by John Tully 
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (RNS) At Boston College this spring, senior Pierce Keegan found something he’d been missing: a visible connection to his older sister, Marina, who died in a car accident five years ago.


But the economics major didn’t discover it in this Jesuit school’s chapel, theology classes or faith groups.

He found it in “Digital Diaries,” a photography and graphic design course that’s part of a wave of expanding visual arts programs on Christian college campuses nationwide.

Inside a new classroom custom-tailored for digital arts, Keegan created “Echoes of My Mind,” a book made from online images and Photoshop. A two-page spread shows a broadcast tower shouting a wavy line of text in Marina’s voice.

She used to say, “‘Radio waves go on forever, so I’m going to go to a radio tower and scream my name into space, and that will be my lasting work,’” said Keegan, who describes himself as nonreligious. “I wanted to capture the permanence.”

Over the past decade, more than 85 Christian colleges and universities have added new degree programs in the arts, according to data from college associations. At least 10 have introduced new degrees specifically in visual arts since 2012. Some have also hired new visual arts faculty, expanded studios, added galleries or opened museums. A few examples:

Last year, Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., a Pentecostal school, launched painting and drawing classes, a 1,600-foot studio and a student art gallery ahead of a new bachelor of arts in visual arts program that debuts in August.
The University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, created 10 new faculty positions in visual arts since 2007, and enrollment in art courses has climbed from 250 to 1,000 per year over that period.
At Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., another Pentecostal school, a new Master of Arts Education degree will begin this fall with support from a new, dedicated $4.5 million endowment, and four more visual arts degree programs are in the works.
Though offered at Christian colleges, many of the new classes aren’t necessarily producing art that’s explicitly Christian – or even religious. The idea is to give students, who might or might not be people of faith, a medium where they can explore whatever is meaningful to them. Only one of 12 students in “Digital Diaries” said she had made something remotely religious. Her image of water approaching a horizon was meant to be spiritual, she said.

With new investments, Christian schools aim to equip graduates for an image-saturated world in which jobs, ministries and social networking require visual literacy and competence. Students, meanwhile, are using the arts to explore who they are, what they believe and where they fit on America’s diverse religious landscape.

“People are realizing that we are visually inundated in a visually mediated society through advertising and film – that’s how we’re communicating all the time,” said Kimberly Kersey-Asbury, the first tenured art professor at St. Anselm College, a Catholic school in Manchester, N.H. “Students are now learning to think critically about the visual messages that we’re consuming.”

Visual arts haven’t always been well received on Christian campuses. Conservative Protestant schools, steeped in a Reformation heritage that prioritizes God’s Word, feared the visual arts could have a corrupting effect, according to Cameron Anderson, executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts, a Madison, Wis.-based association of artists. But that’s been changing.

“There’s been a movement over the past 10 or 15 years,” Anderson said. “They’ve been rethinking their relationship to culture and whether to engage it. That explains a lot.”

Roman Catholicism has long celebrated visual forms, from stained glass to venerated sculptures, but art on campus had been relatively limited and confined until recently.

Last fall, for instance, Boston College’s art collection relocated from a cramped space in an academic building to a stately new museum in what had been the mansion home of Boston archbishops for almost 70 years.

At St. Anselm, Kersey-Asbury said, “the arts had really just been left to flounder” for decades. The art department was in a cinderblock building with no art on the walls and no art supplies, just adjunct instructors feeling “depressed and defeated,” Kersey-Asbury said. About a year later, when an executive vice president hung student artwork that Kersey-Asbury curated, the display lasted only a few days.

“One of the monks came in and was so upset (the vice president) had student artwork inappropriately hanging in her office that she was told to take it down,” Kersey-Asbury said. “It was a hardcore culture of: ‘We don’t just hang art willy-nilly.’… It had to have a certain formal feel (and) student work would not be of the right caliber.”

Now the atmosphere at St. Anselm is far more expressive and encouraging. Six galleries showcase more than 400 works per year, including art made by students as well as alumni and other professional artists.

Last year kicked off a new hybrid position (part faculty, part staff) that enables Josh Dannin to teach courses in digital art and support facilities by, for example, developing a woodworking shop.

On the practical side, visual arts training is increasingly valued in job markets, especially in digital applications such as graphic design.

At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, roughly half of each year’s visual arts graduates find commercial work, according to Associate Professor of Art Jason Howell. The rest get jobs on church staffs. There they help create aesthetically pleasing experiences at websites and in multisite congregations, where people in various locations are united via video.

“That’s part of the push” for visual arts at ORU, said Howell, whose team is developing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program with a focus on virtual reality and augmented reality. “Students see opportunity. They can contribute to the Great Commission to go out and spread the gospel.”

And where students are questioning elements of faith, the arts are providing pathways to find what feels authentic.

Boston College sophomore Lizzy Barrett grew up attending Catholic Mass weekly. She no longer practices her faith, partly because she opposes the church’s ban on women priests, but a campus ministry trip to the U.S.-Mexico border stoked a concern for human rights. Now she’s channeling that passion through art at BC, where a new digital media lab opened last year. Her “Digital Diaries” book uses images to tell the stories of two of her grandparents who fled Axis powers en route to America during World War II.

“I’m passionate about humanizing people,” said Barrett, who wants to be a photojournalist. “Coming back from the trip, I wanted to emphasize how everyone has an immigration story. … That’s why (my book) is told in the first person: to be like, ‘This could be your experience.’”

(G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a Boston-based correspondent)

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